Can Cisco commit to management software?

* Cisco's intent to buy application management and automation software maker Tidal has industry watchers wondering if the hardware giant will stick to a long-term software strategy.

Cisco's recent Unified Computing System launch caused an analytical frenzy among industry watchers speculating about how the network equipment maker could rival HP and IBM in the data center server market.

Many concluded that without solid heterogeneous management and data center automation capabilities -- which competitors HP and IBM each tout -- Cisco would fall short of its intelligent data center nirvana.

And now it seems Cisco might agree. While the router and switch vendor didn't put a bid out for its UCS partner BMC -- yet -- Cisco did announce its intentions to buy Tidal Software, an application management and automation software maker that perhaps would be best known for its work around managing SOA and other sophisticated application environments.

Cisco executives said in a statement that the $105 million Tidal Software buy would equip the vendor with "cost-efficient management and automation of application performance across entire business operations, from the server through the network to the desktop."

Gary Moore, senior vice president of Advanced Services at Cisco, said last week in a press release: "Cisco believes the network has become the logical platform to manage and maintain mission-critical applications."

Despite Cisco's vision that the network will play a pivotal role, IT buyers don't yet view Cisco as a data center provider. That's why such management capabilities will be crucial to the success of Cisco's bid for data center infrastructure market share, analysts say.

"The future of hardware is smart hardware, not just equipment. What we are really talking about now is something that has the intelligence to adapt on its own," says Glenn O'Donnell, senior analyst at Forrester Research. "Cisco realizes if it wants to play a bigger role in the data center space that the company has to stop teasing and playing coy with its software strategy. Cisco is the new kid in town in the data center and will need a solid software strategy to go against HP and IBM."

And that strategy will have to go beyond OEM deals and partnerships like Cisco has with BMC to full-blown acquisitions. HP and IBM have been separately stumping for their adaptive, on-demand and other aptly named next-generation data centers for several years now; Cisco will definitely be playing catch up to win over customers. But perhaps this data center drive will force Cisco to commit long-term to software.

"Cisco has had an on-again/off-again romance with management software. It gets things started and then ignores it," O'Donnell explains. "Cisco is embarking on an unfamiliar journey that could be full of landmines, but with the right software strategy, a vendor of Cisco's caliber can more easily navigate around those landmines."

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